With its bullet trains; electronic toilets that warm, clean and dry; and hyper-efficient delivery systems that bring online orders to the doorstep within hours, it’s easy to forget that Japan is also a nation of ancient spirits — unless, that is, you’ve witnessed the annual pilgrimage to the fire-god shrine, nestled on a wooded mountain just north of Osaka, Japan.
About 3.5 million people visit the Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji complex annually, over 700,000 of them during the peak pilgrimage season from New Years to early February alone, says Koken Sakamoto, chief priest of the ancient Buddhist temple that also hosts the popular Kiyoshikojin shrine and other Shinto holy places there.
Founded in 896 by Emperor Uda, the Seicho-ji temple, near the Osaka bedroom community of Takarazuka, is the seat of Japan’s most prominent shrine to Kojin, god of the hearth. Also known as the fire or kitchen god, Kojin is still widely revered in the Osaka area as well as much of rural Japan. Ironically, the complex burnt down several times over the centuries, and most of the current shrine structures date only to the Edo period.
The complex also includes shrines to the Shinto gods of water, eyes, oxen and commerce, along with shrines to a handful of other ancient spirits essential to daily life, along with a Buddhist temple.
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Although Buddhism and Shinto, a religion as old as Japan itself, were officially separated by the government in the 19th century, this temple is one of the few remaining holy places where they remain entwined.
Koken, head priest charged with both Buddhist and Shinto worship there, also oversees a museum of art on the grounds. Founded by his grandfather, who believed art appreciation was a crucial part of godliness, the museum includes over a thousand paintings by Japanese painter Tessai Tomikawa.
“Everyone in Japan is working so hard and trying to do their best, but they always reach a point where they want more. They come to ask the gods to help them achieve their goals,” Koken explained over cups of green tea and delicate bean-paste desserts. “I am a mediator to help people reach those powerful ancient gods through prayer.”
Heading to the shrines
Every year, after the department store Santas have gone home, Christmas parties are but a memory and the new year has been ushered in by Buddhist monks ringing bells across the nation on New Year’s Eve, millions of Japanese across the country visit Shinto shrines to offer their first prayers of the year and make wishes.
They pack up tote bags and backpacks with good-luck charms and small wooden household shrines to flock to holy places like Kiyoshikojin to honor the Shinto gods that remain an essential part of the Japanese psyche.
At Kiyoshikojin, the old household shrines and charms are collected to be burned in a holy bonfire in February, and new shrines and charms are purchased for protection and blessings during the year ahead.
During the winter months, buses and trains arrive daily, packed with families, couples on dates, old and young alike headed for a day of festivities, food, prayer and shopping at Kiyoshikojin.
After a crowded 15-minute walk from the Kiyoshikojin train station, it’s the wafting smells of Japanese street foods that are the first signs that the pilgrimage has begun. Stands with barbecued squid, fried chicken, and the area’s famous tako-yaki, or balls of grilled octopus, vie with hawkers of fried noodles, and tai-yaki, or bean-paste filled pancakes shaped like sea bream. Makeshift tables are crowded with revelers.
From there, a paved pathway up to the shrines and temple is lined with shops and stands selling delicacies ranging from Japanese hot pepper to wooden sandals called geta.
At the top of the hill, lines are long for the various shrines, where coins are tossed into offering boxes, enormous bells on giant colorful ropes are sounded, and prayers are made.
Near the fire-god shrine, the largest there, stands a giant dish of incense. Worshippers fan the scented smoke from it into their faces and hair. Elsewhere sits a bronze Buddhist statue that visitor after visitor touches for good luck.
Important ceremonies and enormous cherry trees also attract visitors to the complex during cherry-blossom season in the spring, when Buddhist prayer services are held to remember those killed in wars or natural disasters.
The shrine and temple complex, with its koi pond, Japanese maples and seasonal festivities, is open to visitors throughout the year.